Henry Seidel Canby (essay date 1936)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Estimates of the Dead," in Seven Years' Harvest: Notes on Contemporary Literature, Farrar & Rinehart, 1936, pp. 49-53.

[In the following essay, Canby discusses Rogers in the context of other "homespun philosophers."]

Will Rogers was a fellow of infinite jest, a true Shakespearian clown, who used clowning to savor his philosophy. Yet it was not what he said, or did, but what he stood for in the American scene that seems most interesting.

We Americans have had a long tradition of philosophers in homespun, so long considering the little age of the Republic, and so notable in their day and sometimes after it, as to ask for comment. Homespun in mind they have all been, which means, that whatever the source of their wisdom, its form and pressure were distinctively local to this continent, and many of them have been homely also in speech, self-made in knowledge, and blatantly provincial. Franklin's Poor Richard was our first of note, a small-town sage who repeated the commonplaces of the eighteenth century with a difference that came from shrewd experience in a struggling community. Irving, I have always believed, was satirizing the village wiseacre and know-it-all in his Dutchmen who puffed smoke instead of thinking. But it was Petroleum V. Naseby, Artemus Ward, Mark Twain, and "Hosea Biglow" in which the type finally realized itself, and took on an originality which must be credited to America.

Artemus Ward was certainly the Will Rogers of his day. He had not been a cowboy, was not semi-literate, could not use by nature a dialect so colloquial that the native American recognized in him the fellow who sat every Saturday night on the cracker barrel. And so Artemus hit upon the device of bad spelling to make himself homely. His spellings are often funny, but often absurd, with no possible relation to mispronounciation. Nevertheless they accomplished what he wished, which was to wrap up his quite serious political and social philosophy in wit and humor. If what he said was not funny, the way it was spelled made it seem to be, and so he got readers who never would have been trapped by an English above their own, or ideas that were not offered as a joke.

Mark Twain learned much from him, but did not change the principle, or when he did, lost his audience. "Huck-leberry Finn" is a masterpiece of irony in which a raga-muffin says things which the low-brow American audience would never have taken so readily if spoken with authority and by an educated man. He was addressing a nation with little intellectual self-confidence although a vast certainty in its own judgment. It was a practical nation that had succeeded by rule-of-thumb where every scholar had said that it would fail, and that was terribly shy of abstract ideas except...

(The entire section is 1161 words.)

Walter Blair (essay date 1942)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Abe Martin and Will Rogers," in Horse Sense in American Humor: From Benjamin Franklin to Ogden Nash, The University of Chicago Press, 1942, pp. 256-73.

[In the following essay, Blair surveys early humorists who influenced Rogers.]


Plenty of people in 1930 were ready to swear that, in Kin Hubbard and Will Rogers, the twentieth century had produced two figures the like of which America had not seen in the past. But anyone who looks back through the years at the scores of homespun philosophers who said things as Americans liked to have them said will see that the resemblances between these writers of our own day and the men who went...

(The entire section is 5344 words.)

Norris W. Yates (essay date 1964)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Crackerbarrel Sage in the West and South: Will Rogers and Irvin S. Cobb," in The American Humorist: Conscience of the Twentieth Century, Iowa State University Press, 1964, pp. 113-33.

[In the following essay, Yates explains the ways in which Rogers adapted and modified the tradition of nineteenth-century American humorists.]

As a frontispiece to the revised edition (1960) of his book, Native American Humor, Walter Blair has drawn a circle of nineteenth-century humorists seated around a potbellied stove, evidently swapping yarns. If Professor Blair had added one of George Ade's self-made men, and portraits of Abe Martin, Will Rogers, Irvin S. Cobb,...

(The entire section is 5015 words.)

William R. Brown (essay date 1970)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Will Rogers, American Adam," in Imagemaker: Will Rogers and the American Dream, University of Missouri Press, 1970, pp. 70-87.

[In the following essay, Brown examines Rogers's use of the "rugged individualist" philosophy in his work.]

Will Rogers was dedicated to the vision of man as being intrinsically worthy. Growing up as he had in a new country in which there was no overcrowding to cheapen human life, living as the king of creatures in that new country, and being himself the unique product of the mixing of New and Old World cultures, he could reasonably be expected to value the unique individual. If such a dedication to the worth of the individual might be...

(The entire section is 7699 words.)

Peter C. Rollins (essay date 1976)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Will Rogers: Symbolic Man, Journalist, and Film Image," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 9, No. 4, 1976, pp. 850-74.

[In the following essay, Rollins argues that Rogers used his image to calm many of the social anxieties common to Americans at the time.]

On August 15, 1935, Will Rogers and his pilot Wiley Post were killed in a plane crash at Point Barrow, Alaska. Exactly one week later, the offices of Twentieth Century Fox and Universal Studios closed at noon so that office workers could attend a special memorial service at the Hollywood Bowl "where over twenty thousand gathered to pay tribute to the memory of the beloved humorist." That evening, twelve...

(The entire section is 12768 words.)

Peter C. Rollins (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Writing a Contemporary Column in 'The Spirit of Will Rogers': An Exercise in Practical Criticism," in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1991, pp. 59-68.

[In the following essay, Rollins explains his attempt to revive the Will Rogers tradition in his own writing.]

Will Rogers had an enormous impact on the people of his time, but sometimes I wonder if he realized the tyranny he would have over the lives of a small group of scholars long after his death. The Will Rogers writing habit can become a sickness leading to otherwise unaccountable behavior! For example, in 1935, Tulsa lawyer David Milsten published a book entitled An Appreciation of Will...

(The entire section is 5881 words.)

Ben Yagoda (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Reversible Figure: Will Rogers and Politics," in Will Rogers: A Biography, Alfred A. Knopf, 1993, pp. 285-303.

[In the following essay, Yagoda provides an explication of Rogers's political beliefs.]

Politically, Will was a little hard to pin down. What was one to make of a columnist who, as occasion demanded, would praise Calvin Coolidge and Al Smith, Dwight Morrow and Robert La Follette Jr., William Borah and Franklin D. Roosevelt? The inconsistency, however, was more apparent than real; certainly Will was not unaware of the sizable differences among these men of affairs. It was just that as he developed as a commentator through the 1920s and into the 1930s,...

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Joel Schechter (essay date 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "David Crockett Goes to Washington, Will Rogers Stays Home," in Satiric Impersonations: From Aristophanes to the Guerrilla Girls, Southern Illinois University Press, 1994, pp. 34-45.

[In the following excerpt, Schechter examines Rogers's use of satire in his writings and performance.]

Long before a former Hollywood actor entered the White House, theater was inextricably linked to American politics by Congressman David Crockett. Crockett's collusion with his impersonators in the 1830s initially advanced his career and then harmed it. At the same time professional actor James Hackett popularized Crockett's persona in a stage play promoted by the Whig Party, the...

(The entire section is 4039 words.)